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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Letter from Richmond

As you may or may not know, HTG works in the agricultural sector of our country's economic engine. (How appropriate for a history lover to work with what is TRULY the world's oldest profession, right?)

As part of my duties, I recently found myself in Richmond, Virginia, stopping there for an excuse to drink Virginia's finest fermented grapes an agribusiness meeting and reception.

And by agribusinesses, I mean that we were celebrating all of the wineries big and small farms that make up the largest part of Virginia's economy and workforce. Seriously, whether you like wine or not, it's pretty likely that you like to eat. And Virginia's farmers have an economic impact of over $55billion, providing over 357.000 jobs within the Commonwealth.

Some of those jobs belong to friendly sommeliers.
Virginia has lots of agriculture, and lots of history. It has lots of history that involves agriculture. Thomas Jefferson--statesman, politician, architect--was most proud of his agricultural pursuits ("I am become the most industrious and ardent farmer" he wrote to Madame de Tesse.) If you've visited Monticello, you know that he spent more time on his garden than he did on his finances.

Anyway, thinking of TJ and all his fellow patriots, I made an impassioned "Give me Chardonnay or give me death!" speech right before the reception ended (Patrick Henry? A Virginian, of course).

If you prefer wine to death as well, you can learn more about local wineries at

Although I didn't get to visit any vineyards on my trip, I did see this very cool sunset out of my hotel window. (Special kudos go to the housekeeping staff at the Convention Center Marriott for the exceptionally clean windows that allowed me to get this shot. See 'em at

It's a modern Marriott, fairly standard with the nice smelling soap perched on a washrag next to the bathub. At least I thought it was modern, until I noticed this little throwback in the 10th floor hallway:

Was it a direct line to the historic society in town? A closed circuit phone that rings in Monticello when you pick it up? It was an internal phone only (although with no visible list of available extensions, I 'm not sure who exactly I was going to call on it). But I thought it was cute, a little pinch of history in a pretty historic state.

I hope to be back in Virignia soon. And I hope to stay a little bit longer than one night.

After all, it's only about three hours to the south of the HTG Homestead. I don't mind making that drive, assuming that there will be a nice glass of grape juice plus waiting for me on my arrival.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Here Kitty, Kitty: Cat Got Your...Foot?

There's a new survey out about cats and dogs and the people who like them (or don't like them). You can read all about it at, but here's the gist: 74% of people like dogs a lot, while just under half of the people feel the same way about cats.

As if cat people would fill out some stupid survey.

I like both of them...although I prefer them to be outside, where God intended all animals to be. I grew up on a farm, after all, with more animals than you can imagine (that includes one or two of the hired men, but that is an entirely different story).

But even with that tough-girl-farming background I had an ick moment at the Villa Zorayda in St. Augustine recently (, as I found myself alone in a room with their famous "Sacred Cat Rug" (well, I was mostly alone...but we'll get to that later).

The Sacred Cat Rug is 2400 years old. That's not a typo. And that's old, even for someone who looks for old things and places as a matter of course.

You know if you're looking at something man-made that old, you're probably talking ancient Egypt. Yup. According to the Villa Zorayda's literature, the rug was "taken from a pyramid in Egypt." I'm assuming that means "stolen by the light of a gas lamp by some guy in a pith hat".

Like most items stolen from pyramids, this one has a curse. The Zorayda doesn't say what the curse promises will happen, but it only applies to people who walk on the rug. And since the rug is now hanging on a wall in the Villa, behind protective plexiglass, it doesn't seem too likely that will happen, so I guess it doesn't matter what horrible fortunes the curse portends (if you don't know what portends means, insert the word "pretends").

Here's the ick part: not only does the rug have a bold and graphic cat motif, but it's made of cat hair, too.

Those little minxes just give and give and give, don't they?

Whoever "took" the rug from the pyramid, "took" a little something else too: a mummy (presumably 2400 years old as well). While they took the whole thing (wrapped up in the rug), they only kept the foot of the mummy. It wasn't any ancient fetish, but rather because the foot was somehow embedded with gems--a big ruby in one of the toes, and another milky looking rock in the ankle. I'm not sure how the gems were embedded...and honestly, I don't want to know. What happened in ancient Egypt stays in ancient Egypt, I say, especially if it has to do with embalming and pulling someone's brain out through their nose (that's everything I remember about mummies from school).

Anyway. The foot was in the room, too.

I'm not sure that the foot is cursed, but I know that I cursed when I saw it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Loving the Craziness: Villa Zorayda

When people used to ask me what my house looked like on the inside, I used to say "early crazy." Because the people we bought the house from were a little...eccentric.

A few details: our living room had one paneled wall, one stucco'd wall, and fake beams on the ceiling. There was white Z-brick in the dining room. If you're not familiar with Z-brick, it's the "easy to install, brick veneer system for the amateur decorator" (

If you are familiar with it, you know it's short for craZY-brick.

Anyway, I've seen some crazy crap in houses. But nothing in suburban Baltimore prepared me for the Town Hall of Crazytown in St. Augustine this past weekend. Villa Zorayda (

I've been to villas before: the Morning Star Villa in Cape May (, Villa de la Roca in Zihautenajo ( I think there's a difference between the ones that are a villa (said like "bridezilla") or a villa (rhymes with "be-a", as in the southern "be-a de-ah and pass the be-er"). Based on my limited experience, the difference seems to be about two grand a week and a trip through customs.

Villa Zorayda in St. Augustine is a villa; rhyme it with gorilla. It looks like a gorilla may have decorated it. With a box of crayons.

The villa was built as a winter getaway in 1883 by Frank Smith. It's a sturdy structure, to be sure. Frank figured out a way to combine crushed coquina shell (it's the heavy, non-porous rocks found on the east coast of Florida) and poured concrete to create a fortress of a house. (His frenemy Henry Flagler used the same method when he built the Ponce de Leon hotel across the street).

Frank modeled the building after the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. And by model, I mean like scale model, because the whole place is built to 1/10th the scale of the original. 

St. Augustine has a lot of Moorish/Spanish influences. Frank helped start that design bent. In addition to the Villa Zorayda, Frank built the Casa Monica (now a great hotel run by the Kessler Group,, which is just up the street. It's a whole little Spanish enclave in that area, with the Ponce and the Lightner Museum (

Let's get back to the craziness of the Villa Zorayda itself. The outside of the building hints at it with its red and yellow accents dotting the cement facade of the building. But it's the inside that is really nuts--a confetti of primary colors on every possible surface. And stuff--there is stuff everywhere, from china sets to statues, to pierced metal lamps to paintings. Vases, and screens, and Victorian furniture. With all the colors, and all the stuff, it's hard to take it all in.

Here's a photo that you can study to see some of the treasures.

As I look at it, I realize the one thing that it needs. A nice wall of stylish white Z-brick.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year, Old Tricks

Earlier this week, I shared with you my love for all things Belsnickel.

For the record, the lonely travelers I was talking about were rural Belsnickels. They terrorized children that lived down long lanes, in drafty old farmhouses. Children who had to milk cows and help can beans. Children who spent most of the winter carrying water to thirsty animals. Children who were probably too tired to get in much trouble anyway.

Urban Belsnickels, on the other hand, traveled in packs, gathering under street lamps to dance, sing or ask for donations (it really is uncanny how all of these Belsnickel guys sound just like my Uncle Dave). They could be quite destructive, blocking streets with "old barrels, hogheads, grocery boxes, wheelbarrels, harrows, plows, wagon and cart wheels" (from the Pottstown LaFayette Aurora in 1826). If I came to an intersection, and found that it was blocked by huge piles of hogheads, I think I'd find an alternate route. Fast.

As time went on, many of these hooligans wore masks and performed short skits. The revelry delighted some and annoyed others, with the editor of the Pottstown Ledger writing on December 26, 1873, that "This bellsnickle business, which is becoming more of a rough and rowdy of the Christmas season each year, might as well be omitted altogether."

The dancing around with the masks was called...*wait for it*...*here it comes*....MUMMING!!!

Sound phamiliar, phellow Philadelphians?

While it was omitted altogether from Christmas, mumming found a place on New Year's Day in the Philadelphia Mummer's Day parade. Where it delights some and annoys others to this day.

How are you spending new year's day? Any resolutions that are fit for public comment?

I'm headed off to find some pork and sauerkraut, like any good Pennsylvania Dutch girl (I might cover my bases, since I'm spending the day in the south, and throw in some collards and black-eyed peas...because I can use all the luck I can get!)

Happy New Year!!!!